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Is Question Tools Open Source?

Periodically, we receive requests for the source code for Question Tools. Question Tools Editor is available free, and some mistakenly assume Question Tools is open source as a result. This article from the principal developer explains why Question Tools is not open source.

Why does open source software exist?

There are a variety of arguments in favour of open source software. For example, open source software has been checked by many programmers, and this scrutiny improves quality. Programmers involved in open source are more likely to be frank about bugs and problems, and this results in informed and ultimately better-educated users. Some arguments involve notions of freedom and control.

Yet, some open source projects have returned to being closed source (e.g. the excellent hMailServer). The developers discovered that hardly anyone looked through their code and helped with improvements and fixes.

My personal view is that many of these arguments are not the real reasons — they are post-hoc justifications for individual, personal decisions made by open source developers.

The real reason for open source

Many open source programmers are deeply concerned about quality — real quality, not paper-based quality. They are creative, proud of their achievements, and in some cases obsessive about the tools they have created. Open source programming allows them to be in charge, it allows them to make the decisions, to take responsibility, to be involved in a community of programmers, to gain the respect of others through their hard work. In short, they are rewarded personally for their skills, attention to detail and long hours.

Working in a commercial software team can be a very different experience. A software engineer will be told exactly what to produce. Often they will be required to develop quick and messy fixes. Sometimes they have to dismantle careful and elegant work because the customer's requirements were misinterpreted and their work has to be thrown away or botched. Blame is never too far away, and is often allocated unfairly. There is often no link between hard work and reward. Software developers who escape commercial teams and move into open source often feel they have been let out of jail.


It is true that Question Tools makes a significant proportion of its software available for free, in the form of Question Tools Editor. In part, this is in our interests. We get recommendations and publicity few companies can afford. Our software is very well tested, and we get some first-class bug reports. As we are doing something that is benefiting others, many people are well-disposed towards us.

In addition, the messages of thanks, particularly from individuals in some of the poorer countries in the world, are personally rewarding. However, I have no desire to give much free to large corporate organizations. Many large organizations want to test and survey their staff and collect results by the thousand, but I feel no need to help them for free.

The ability to provide commercial software provides an income. I have been concerned that so few companies make money from open source software. An approach that seeks donations is, at its worst, a tax on those with a conscience.

Competitors and Security

We know we have a world-leading editor and server. Educators and trainers are creating effective and attractive exams, lessons and surveys without the involvement of a programmer. Our software is not built upon someone elses authoring tools (such as Adobe's Flash), nor does delivery and results collection depend upon other companies' web servers. Why would we want to give all of the careful work and clever solutions we have developed to our competitors? It is true that we do work (and even like) some competitors, but they only work with us because we have something of value — something we have not already given away.

In addition, by keeping our source code secret we make it harder for those with ill intent to break into or compromise our software. My personal belief is that no software is totally secure, and I am not going to claim that Question Tools is unbreakable. On the other hand, I do not wish to make it any easier by publishing the source.

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